Seeking Balance, Part I: A Sense of Balance
"Mountain goat is saying, "Whaddya fall down for?"
Balance. It’s what’s been on my mind. I see it and speak to it every day. Every day I work with men and women who tell me, “I’ve never had good balance,” or, “I used to, but it’s not so good now. I’m getting old I guess.” Doctors do note that our sense of and ability to balance seems to deteriorate with time. But here’s the good news – it doesn’t have to. If it has for you, there are simple things you can do to improve it. And by keeping balance a part of your daily life you can maintain what you currently have. I always say balance is like a muscle – if you don’t use it you lose it, and we can always make it better.
What is known as our sense of balance comes from a coordination of three systems – our vision, our vestibular system (inner ear), and the proprioception of our muscles, specifically our feet. Age related vision loss could definitely contribute to a change in balance. And it’s also not uncommon for people to develop inner ear disturbances with age. Positional vertigo does seem to be more of a mature person’s malady. But we definitely have control of the third component of balance, which has everything to do with keeping our muscles alert, aware, and strong. Our feet are particularly important in helping our body navigate, and our leg muscles are equally valuable. The muscles themselves give feedback to our brain about where our bodies are in space, which helps us determine how best to balance.
But nothing helps us be steadier than having a strong center. We call it the powerhouse, the core, the center. Center of what, you may ask? Well, I’d say it’s our center of balance. Whether simply our bodyweight or some outside force, any challenge to our ‘core’ is, in my opinion, a challenge to maintain our center of balance. Our center of balance is the place in which we can align our bodies most efficiently against gravity. Keeping these muscles educated and strong is our best weapon in staying upright.
I sound like I’m from Game of Thrones when I say, “Winter is coming.” But here in The North we must give grave and sober thought to what winter brings – cold and snow most definitely, but the most dangerous of these is ice. I defy any snow dweller of any age to say they have survived winter without at least one wipeout worth mentioning. In fact I’d say we take a certain grim pleasure in recounting the gruesome details. I myself have gone down a flight of steps on my fanny due to ice and it was my adequate padding or just luck that brought me through without anything more serious than bruising.
Many older adults aren’t so lucky, however. Falling is considered a leading health concern of people over 60, and between 20 – 40% of adults over age 65 falls per year. (Charlotte Shupert, PhD) Hip fracture is synonymous with the elderly, and unfortunately a large percentage of those folks who fracture a hip end up in a spiraling decline of health. The same source as above even states that up to 67% of the elderly who fracture a hip die within 1 year. This is not a situation to take lightly, especially since we can do something about it.
Balance exercises can be as simple as standing and swaying, rocking your weight from your toes to your heels. Or you can challenge yourself to stand on your tiptoes or on one leg. When you start to feel like a hotshot, try doing the same but closing your eyes. Yup, you get to start all over again. A simple but powerful balance and strength combination can be achieved by keeping an upright posture while sitting in and standing up from a chair several times. This is a fantastic way to begin working a squat, which a very effective exercise in every way I can think of.
And Pilates has got to be one of the friendliest ways I know of to learn, improve, and maintain balance. The work of strengthening your body begins lying down so the ground and gravity can assist you. But slowly, methodically, we begin to change your relationship with gravity until you’re side lying, then sitting, and finally standing. And all this methodical practice has prepared you to integrate your entire body from the soles of the feet to the top of your head, thereby making your sense of balance akin to that of a mountain goat.
So my challenge to you in November is this – be the mountain goat. Let’s all work on finding our balance as a felt sense and practical need. Then, in Part 2, we’ll talk about the balance in our bodies and how dysfunction and pain comes when things aren’t balanced. In Part 3 we’ll sum it up with balance as an emotional and mental imperative to happiness.
And then we’ll be steady, pain free, happy mountain goats.